For a story on this week’s cover (“Tackling the Big Questions”), senior writer Suzanne Pollak embarks on a quest for no less than meaning in Judaism. Who says summers are lazy? I have been thinking a lot lately about the reasons we turn to our religion.
For food and festivals? A sense of community? Spirituality and a connection to God? Purpose? The meaning of life, and death? Some combination of the above, or all of it? Judaism does not purport to have answers for all of our Big Questions. Take Holocaust theology, for example. Some of the best minds among us cannot agree on whether the Shoah compels us to reconsider our classical notion of God as omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
Nor can our religion – any religion – meet all of our needs all of the time. The very name of our tribe – “Israel” (“he who wrestles with God”) – suggests a work forever in progress. But, very often, Judaism, I have found, is a source of more than ritual. It can be a source of meaning.
We depend greatly on rabbis to help us find that meaning in our lives, even though Judaism does not confer any special sacerdotal status on rabbis, and most rabbis do not presume to be holier than the rest of us. Pollak’s story gives us some poignant examples of when rabbis have succeeded in doing so, as well as a memorable example of where one fell short.
I was especially impressed by the anecdote in her story about Ellen Blalock of Vienna, who, when confronted with the sudden death of her 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, knew that she needed more from Judaism than the typical eulogy filled with hollow honorifics about the deceased. You know the sort of speech I mean.
No doubt you have heard it many times before. Blalock needed real wisdom and guidance, even if that knowledge failed to comfort her. And her rabbi delivered, offering her some unexpected and blunt truths about the limit of God’s intervention in our daily lives and the need to reconnect with the world in spite of loss. God is – for the most part – out of the physical loop of the world he created, the Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist Anne Dillard wrote in 1999’s For the Time Being. “Natural materials clash and replicate, shaping our fates.
We lose the people we love, we lose our vigor, and we lose our lives. Perhaps, at best, God knows nothing of these temporal accidents, but knows souls only.
This God does not direct the universe, he underlies it.” It took courage for Blalock’s rabbi to speak in such unromantic terms. “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly,” C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his diary of mourning his wife, A Grief Observed. “Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” In the end, it was Blalock’s rabbi’s boldness that helped her to shed her guilt resulting from her daughter’s death and begin to move on.
In the case of the Shofnos family profiled in Pollak’s story, it was their rabbi’s full and complete portrait of their deceased mother, Lil – neither glorifying nor pitying her image – that helped them to process their grief. Pollak’s story has shown me, freshly, the importance of words and the importance of rabbis, who are not our religion’s priests, but rather our teachers and guides.
This story will hopefully serve as encouragement to those rabbis who wish to tackle the Big Questions in their sermons, at funerals, at weddings, at bedsides and in private counsel with their congregants.
Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, wrote the Bard. But it must signify something. And rabbis play a vital role in helping us find out what.